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Collecting pieces of Minnesota's past for the future


The Minnesota Historical Society preserves and makes available a wide range of materials chronicling Minnesota's history and culture. The goals of the Collections Department are to collect and preserve; provide access and interpretation; and engage in education and outreach. This blog is a tool to share these stories and let people know what is happening in the department.

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Our Favorite Things

A Japanese Ball at the White House, 1877-1881

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | January 18, 2017

This silk satin and brocade reception dress was given to the Society in 1920 as part of several large donations of household goods from the LeDuc family of Hastings, Minnesota. General William Gates LeDuc was a quartermaster in the Civil War and then U.S. Commissioner of Agriculture. He sought his fortune in frontier industries -- railroads, mining, real estate, lumber, steamboats and farming.

LeDuc served as Commissioner of Agriculture in the Hayes administration from 1877-1881. Mary embraced Washington social life.  In her letters she wrote about visiting the White House, social events and her wardrobe. She wrote to her daughter Minnie:  “I have a great taste for all this life.”

This dress was called “ashes of roses” by the donor’s entry in the collections register, referring to the name of a popular color in the 1870s and 80s. Typically “ashes of roses” is described as a faded blush color resembling faded pink rose petals.  It was one of the colors popular during the rise of the Aesthetic period, when neutral colors were understood as more tasteful than the new synthetic aniline dyes and their popular bright hues.

Mary LeDuc’s dress with its combination of ashes of roses silk taffeta and white brocade would have been worn during the LeDuc’s residence in Washington between 1877 and 1881. Both Lucy Hayes and Rutherford Hayes kept diaries and entertainment logs during this period. There are various State Dinners and receptions for the Diplomatic Corps noted during the social season each year but no specific mention of a “Japanese Ball.” Thomas Corwin Donaldson, a personal friend of Hayes, noted in his memoirs a communication from the White House doorkeeper, Thomas F. Pendel, that the “receptions and parties they [the Hayeses] gave were the most expensive and costly ever given in the White House. “

These social engagements are also noted in the diary entries of Lucy Scott West, cousin of Mrs. Hayes, who spent the social season of 1878 in Washington. Her diary is full of almost daily receptions, weekly State Dinners and balls in February and March of 1878.  Lucy Scott described one such event on February 16th 1878 that the Japanese minister also attended:

“Thursday night I attended Secretary Evarts Reception & Mrs. Jeffrey's Ball; both most elegant entertainments but "Oh ye Gods & little fishes" what a crush. Upon my word we were half an hour getting up the steps to the dressing room (at Sec. Evarts) & down again. Every body [sic] & his wife was there & the rooms presented the strange appearance of a dense mass of human beings struggling about helplessly in the most inextricable confusion. Two thousand invitations had been issued. The house is lovely & large enough for airy[any] seasonable festivity. The library, supper room & saloon parlors were thrown open on the first floor & there were two or three lovely little apartments up stairs where you could take yr ease & sip coffee, chocolate, or tea. A great many celebrities were present among others the Japanese minister. . .”

The week before, on Feb 7, 1878, Florence LeDuc wrote to her friend Minnie:

“After all I did not enjoy the President’s reception. There was such a great crowd. Papa does not like crowds but must say go as soon as we have spoken to President & Mrs. Hayes. On Monday night we were invited to the Japanese Minister’s – Papa, Mamma, Minnie went. I did not go.”

The Japanese ambassador,Yoshida Kiyonari, served in Washington D. C. for seven years during both the Grant and Hayes administration. One of his accomplishments concluded in an 1879 commercial treaty with Japan, enabling increased trade between the US and Japan. He also coordinated former President Ulysses S. Grant’s visit to Japan in 1879. The Hayes' formed a particular friendship with Minister Yoshida and his wife. Hayes wrote in 1881. “I shall always cherish most agreeable recollections of the friendship formed with you and Mrs. Yoshida during our late residence at Washington.”

Clearly the Japanese minister and his wife were active in this Washington social life, as were the LeDucs, but the specific occasion for which Mrs. LeDuc wore this dress remains a mystery.

Linda McShannock, Textile Curator

*Special thanks to MNHS textile conservator Ann Frisina for her conservation of this dress and mannequin dressing.

A Close Call

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | December 13, 2016

The Civil War is chock-full of tales of tragedy narrowly averted, often in the form of a bullet being stopped by a bible residing in the chest pocket of some fortunate soldier.  However, such occurrences aren’t always accompanied by documentation to substantiate their authenticity, making this sword belt worn by Lt. William Paist of the Eighth Minnesota Volunteer Infantry an especially intriguing artifact.

A native of Ohio, Paist moved to Saint Paul in 1855 and started a real estate business, which prospered until the financial panic of 1857.  In 1862 he enlisted as a private in Company H of the Eighth Minnesota, which served nearly two years in the U.S.-Dakota War until the unit was transferred to the Civil War’s Western Theater.

In December, 1864 the Eighth Minnesota Regiment participated in the Third Battle of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, where they fought against Southern troops for the first time.  On December 7, William Paist, now a lieutenant, was leading his company in battle when he was wounded.  Like many Civil War soldiers, Paist was a prolific writer and penned this account two days later in a letter to his family:

“I was struck once with a grape shot – it is a cast iron ball about as large as a small walnut.  My belt plate saved my life as it struck it & bent & mashed it all up...could not speak for 10 minutes & when I did come too supposed the ball was in my belly but a faithful corporal by the name of Josiah Lothrop was beside me with the ball in his hand. I have it now & intend to string it to my sword.”

Lt. Paist survived the war and returned to Minnesota where he became a successful farmer and a founding member of the North Star Grange of the Order of Patrons of Husbandry.  The Minnesota historical Society holds the papers of William Paist and his family, and now the ball and sword belt from that fateful day in 1864.

Adam Scher, senior curator

Power in the Pages

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | October 17, 2016
It’s that time of year again! The leaves change color, the air gets colder, and things at the Minnesota History Center get spookier!

The Minnesota Historical Society Library is home to more than a dozen works exploring and explaining the supernatural, many of which were published prior to 1930. Here are a few of my favorites!

Startling Facts in Modern Spiritualism with a graphic account of witches, wizards, and witchcraft; table-tipping, spirit rapping, spirit writing, spirit speaking, spirit telegraphing; and spirit materializations of spirit heads, spirit hands, spirit faces, spirit forms, spirit flowers, and every other spirit phenomenon that has occurred in Europe and America, since the 31st of March, 1848, to the Present Time by N.B. Wolfe, 1883

During the second half of the 19th Century, Spiritualism in America was not only commonplace, it was fashionable. (See my previous post about the Ouija Board) It all started on March 31st, 1848, when Margaret and Kate Fox of Rochester, New York, convinced their older sister, (who convinced everyone else) that a spirit in their home was communicating with them by knocking on the wall. This incident is widely regarded as the first occurrence of Spiritualism in the United States. It launched the Fox sisters’ to fame as mediums, (at least for a while), and it opened the door to the study of the supernatural.

This beautiful book contains the first-hand experiences of Napoleon Bonaparte Wolfe, a physician from Cincinnati who appears to have travelled the country visiting mediums. Wolfe describes the various phenomena he witnessed, such as table-tipping, (when participants sit around a table with their hands on it, and wait for the table to move by means of “spirits”), spirit writing, (when a medium unconsciously produced writing due to spirit influence), and trance speakers, (a person who claimed to allow spirits to take over their body and talk to witnesses directly). While he acknowledges he did meet a few charlatans during his travels, Wolfe is a true believer in Spiritualism and his purpose for writing this book was to, “impress the fact indelibly upon the hearts of men, that when we die there is “a world of marvelous beauty” to which we will immediately go; and that we will there meet our friends, our companions, and those that are congenial to our society and condition of development”. (p. 575)

The Shadow World by Hamlin Garland, 1908

Similar to Startling Facts is Hamlin Garland’s The Shadow World. Garland, a writer from the Midwest, recounts his personal experiences with spiritual phenomena in the form of a novel. Garland spent a good deal of his life investigating and promoting Spiritualism in various forms. He even spent time as the Director of the American Psychical Society.

Witch Stories by Elizabeth Lynn Linton, 1861

Eliza Lynn Linton was the first salaried female journalist in Britain and wrote numerous novels on a wide variety of subjects. One of her earliest works, Witch Stories describes reports of witchcraft in Scotland and England dating back to the thirteenth century. To compile this impressive and devastating history of the women and men who were killed for witchcraft, Linton delved into the records and manuscripts of various public libraries, as well as the British Museum. The author presents each account in a straightforward manner, never discussing the philosophical ideals surrounding the subject matter. Rather, she allows readers to arrive at their own conclusion about the integrity of the cases reported. However, Linton makes her own feelings known at the closing of the book:

"...so long as conviction without examination, and belief without proof, pass as the righteous operations of faith, so long will superstition and credulity reign supreme over the mind, and the functions of critical reason be abandoned and forsworn. And as it seems to me that credulity is even a less desirable frame of mind than skepticism, I have set forth this collection of witch stories as landmarks of the excess to which a blind belief may hurry and impel humanity, and perhaps as some slight aids to that much misused common sense which the holders of impossible theories generally consider “enthusiastic,” and of “a nobler life” to tread under foot, and lofty ignore." (p. 428)

The Magus or Celestial Intelligencer by Francis Barret, 1801

This is the oldest book on my list and is, in my opinion, the creepiest. Written by Francis Barrett in 1801, The Magus is a compilation of several works on occult philosophy, much of which Barrett translated into English. Barrett, who also practiced chemistry and metaphysics, was a firm believer in the Cabal, (commonly known as Kabbalah), the Jewish tradition of mystical interpretation of the Bible. This manuscript is ultimately a textbook on natural magic, such as alchemy, talismans and the elements. It contains beautifully crafted images of diagrams and spells, as well as hand-painted illustrations, such as the Faces of Wrath pictured here. Barrett also includes an advertisement that he is available to give private lessons or group lectures on the various subjects presented in his text.

While this book certainly pre-dates the Spiritualist movement of the second half of the century, it was used as source material for those interested in the mystic arts.

Witchcraft Illustrated by Henrietta D. Kimball, 1892

Based on the title I was really hoping this was going to be a monthly periodical providing the latest news, tips and spells for witches.

In actuality, Witchcraft Illustrated describes the witch trial events in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. Kimball explains that during this time period people believed good and evil forces were constantly influencing daily life, stating, “Witches, ghosts, fairies, gorgons, hydras, and chimeras dire were all realities at that time.” (p.4) However, Kimball places the blame of the events surrounding the Salem witch trials solely on power-hungry Reverend Samuel Parris and children who learned they would get attention by throwing tantrums and having fits in public. The author comments, “Now, instead of punishing those girls for this as they ought, their parents and friends looked upon them as under a supernatural power.” (p.6) At the encouragement of the reverend, the children claimed members of the community were causing their afflictions and superstition and mass hysteria took over.

Kimball also examines cases of witchcraft accusations in other places, such as Maine, New Hampshire and Germany, and scrutinizes the persistent punishment of the supposed supernatural, especially among women.

The last section of this book, titled “Old and New Salem”, leaves the subject of witchcraft behind entirely and reads like a travel guide. Kimball explores the extensive history of Salem in detail, being sure to mention all the historic sites that can still be seen. She informs the reader of all the fascinating cultural resources Salem has to offer, mentioning, “Whoever visits Salem must be impressed with the warm hospitality, the superior refinement and culture of its people.”

Perhaps by stating that past atrocities were the result of a select few and pointing out the area’s rich history, Kimball’s purpose for this book was to convince readers to think of Salem as something more than just the home of witches.

This is just a sample of the strange and supernatural books that can be found at the Minnesota Historical Society’s Gale Family Library. Maybe you can find some other gems, just be careful which ones you open!

Stephanie Olson
Collections Assistant

Minnesota Renaissance Fair Photographs

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | August 19, 2016
Huzzah! ‘Tis once again time for the greatest summer festival Minnesota has to offer! (Yeah, that’s right, I said it. The Greatest.)

RF 1.jpg

A group performs traditional dances on a stage with musicians, 1972.

This year the Minnesota Renaissance Festival celebrates its 46th season! Minnesota’s is the second oldest Renaissance fair in the United States, and has one of the highest attendance rates. Started in 1971, the Festival began in a twenty-two acre field in Jonathan, Minnesota, and consisted of little more than tents, stages and straw bales.

Renaissance festivals are outdoor events where performers recreate historical settings and costumes and entertain visitors with music, shows, food, and more. The Minnesota Renaissance Festival is set in 16th Century England, with the addition of playful fairies, elves and mermaids. Visitors can shop for a variety handcrafted treasures and witness the exciting jousting tournaments throughout the day. It’s no wonder this beloved event has grown to such a phenomenon!

The Minnesota Historical Society houses a collection of photographs taken in the second year of the Festival at the Jonathan location.

Vendor stands and tents next to open field, 1972.

Members of the Lebhaft Medieval Ensemble performing, 1972

Members of the Lebhaft Medieval Ensemble performing, 1972

Small child in costume climbing onto a stage, 1972

Small child in costume climbing onto a stage, 1972

Anyone who has been to the Minnesota Renaissance Festival can agree that while the landscape in these photos may be quite different from the grand, colorful structures now found in Shakopee, the enjoyment of the attendees and excitement of the performers remains the same (as well as balloon fencing!!).

Fencing booth worker helping a child into gear, 1972

The Renaissance Festival is open weekends starting August 20 through October 2. I hope to see you there!

Stephanie Olson
Collections Assistant

Remembering “The Dome”

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | July 22, 2016

Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, 501 Chicago Avenue, Minneapolis, 1982.

With US Bank Stadium opening its doors for a public open house July 23-24 we reflect on its predecessor, the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome. Construction began December 20, 1979 but the Dome, just like most publicly funded stadiums, faced opposition. A statewide coalition known as Minnesotans Against the Downtown Dome (MADD — the clever acronym was not associated with Mothers Against Drunk Driving until after that organization was founded in 1980) opposed to legislation that would enable the construction of a domed stadium. In the late 1970s buttons like this were distributed by MADD:

Anti-Metrodome Button <1994.95.20>

In the end voters approved funding and brought professional sports back to Minneapolis in 1982, more than twenty years after the last professional team (the Minneapolis Lakers) left the city. For over thirty years the Metrodome served its purpose in its utilitarian way, though like most multipurpose stadiums the Dome was not particularly ideal for baseball, football, or hearing anything. And occasionally the roof deflated.

The 1980s were a rough decade for the Dome, which became a bowl four times due to extreme weather conditions that deflated or created tears in the 10 acres of roof fabric. This Teflon and fiberglass fabric sample is from the roof that suffered a catastrophic collapse in December 2010 and was completely replaced:

Metrodome roof sample <2014.43.3>

In spite of its problems, the Metrodome was the only venue to host an All-Star Game (1985), two World Series (1987 & 1991), a Super Bowl (1992), a NFC Championship (1998-99), and two Final Fours (1992 & 2001). With more recent trends back toward single sport venues, it is unlikely that the Dome’s record will be challenged anytime soon. Here are a few souvenirs from some notable events:

1985 All-Star Game bumper sticker <1991.267.1>

1989 Minnesota Timberwolves ticket <1991.139.187>

1992 NCAA Final Four button

1992 Super Bowl XXVI ticket <1993.139.3>

When the Dome closed in 2013 the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority (MSFA) generously donated a selection of items used at the stadium to the Minnesota Historical Society, including a pair of seats. But seats at the Dome were mounted vertically to cement and shared armrests. In order to have a more complete packages, and because the Dome was still operating when MSFA made the initial donation, the seats acquired by the Society are assembled from used spare seat parts. Our Senior Objects Conservator, Tom Braun, created the wooden mount that makes for easy and safe display and handling by museum staff.

Pair of Metrodome row seats <2013.159.1>

Be sure to see the Metrodome seats alongside a folding chair from Metropolitan Stadium and a brand new pair of seats borrowed from US Bank Stadium during the upcoming exhibit “Gridiron Glory: The Best of the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” on view September 24, 2016 - January 15, 2017 at the Minnesota History Center. And don't miss the History Flirt event on October 4, 2016, when we'll be hosting a live "Puppy Bowl”!

--Sondra Reierson, Associate Curator, 3D Objects

Learn more:

History Hounds!

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | March 23, 2016
Today, March 23, is National Puppy Day! With this is mind, I wanted to take a moment to share some of the fantastic dogs photographs collected by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Two dogs posed on bench, circa 1925.

Dog with pipe, circa 1875.

Mandy's performing Dachshunds, circa 1945.

Duke on the treadmill of a dog-powered cream separator, circa 1940.

Dog protesting "Dogs Not Permitted" sign at Lake Calhoun beach, 1937.

Young girls giving her dog a ride on a horse, circa 1900.

Two boys and their dog on a sail sled, circa 1930.

Gardner Reynolds and dog, Juno, circa 1895.

Thanks for looking! You can find more dog photographs by searching Collections Online!

Stephanie Olson
Collections Assistant

Restoration of the Minnesota State Capitol

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | May 15, 2015

We, as the Collections Department, clearly love the Collections that tell the story of Minnesota and its people. But we also love field trips, especially those to historic sites. Many of us happen to be civics or architectural nerds (or both), so we were very excited and grateful for the opportunity to visit the Minnesota State Captiol during its current major (and greatly needed) renovation. We had so much fun - thank you to Sondra Reierson for the photos; to the Site; manager Brian Pease; and the construction company for making this possible!

Click any image to enlarge.

Saint Paul Winter Carnival Royalty, 1978

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | January 23, 2015
On a January evening in 1978, young women dressed all in white began arriving at the St. Paul Municipal Auditorium. They were the Royal Princesses of the Saint Paul Winter Carnival, all hoping to be crowned Queen of the Snows. The gilded, cavernous Auditorium had been transformed into the Great Hall of Jupiter for the coronation ceremony. King Boreas had been crowned and on this night a Queen would be chosen to represent the City in the coming year.

Auditorium, St. Paul, before the addition. Ca. 1922

St. Paul Winter Carnival ceremonies at auditorium, St. Paul. Ca. 1948

Donaldson's Golden Rule, Seventh and Robert, St. Paul. Ca. 1966

Donaldson's Golden Rule, Seventh and Robert, St. Paul. Ca. 1966

The Princesses had been preparing for months. In the fall of the previous year, Donaldson's Department Store began an internal selection process for for their own store-sponsored representative. As many as nine single women, aged 18 to 25, were nominated internally and judged on personality, poise, maturity, and walk. By late Fall, Donaldson's had selected their candidate.

Marlene Richter had taken a position at Donaldson's a few years earlier and joined in the store's 1978 Winter Carnival competition in order to expand her social horizons. A University of Minnesota chemical engineering student, Marlene hoped that participating in the Winter Carnival competition would create opportunities to meet new people, outside of the the men surrounding her at school.

Saint Paul Winter Carnival Queen of the Snows coronation gown. Ca. 1978

Once she was selected as Donaldson's Winter Carnival candidate, Marlene began preparing with the manager of the women's wear department. Candidates and sponsors were responsible for providing a formal white coronation gown. The hunt for the perfect gown took the two women to a bridal shop in Rosedale Mall, where they found a two piece formal dress complete with lace and marabou feather trim that fit Marlene beautifully, straight off the rack.

Saint Paul Winter Carnival King Boreas uniform. Ca. 1978

On coronation night, Marlene and the other candidates stood under the hot lights of the Auditorium stage, nervous and excited. When the Grand Chamberlain bowed before Marlene, it took a moment for her to realize the choice was made; she would be Queen of the Snows. King Boreas (Dan Dolan), in his own imposing red uniform complete with gold braid and white gloves, crowned the new queen. The rest of the evening passed in a blur of activity; from a reception at the Radisson hotel on Kellogg Boulevard and back to a women-only suite at the St. Paul Hotel, where the remaining princesses would be outfitted with matching gold gowns to differentiate between Queen and Princesses.

SPWC Royal Coronation at the St. Paul Auditorium, 1978. Courtesy of Marlene Killa

Queen of the Snows Marlene Richter, 1978. Courtesy of Marlene (Richter) Killa

The Royal party would appear at the annual parade and other events during Carnival in St. Paul, but their duties did not end there. As Snow Queen, Marlene made about 400 appearances throughout 1978, following the Carnival tradition of spreading St. Paul hospitality across the state and the nation. She was part of the last group of Carnival royalty to participate in the Rose Bowl Parade in California, on a float with Minneapolis Aquatennial royalty. She wore her coronation gown to many of these events, but wore at least eight other dresses throughout the year.

Marlene's reign ended with the passing of her crown at the 1979 King Boreas coronation event. The Winter Carnival experience was all she had imagined and more. Donaldson's sponsorship not only financed the wardrobe and other costs associated with Carnival, but enabled Marlene to travel extensively. Her social hopes were also realized; she created lasting friendships with the royal party and met Michael Killa, a member of the 1978 Royal Guard. Marlene and Mike later married.

SPWC Royal Party, 1978. Courtesy of Marlene Killa. Michael Killa is 3rd from the right in the top row

After her time in Carnival, Marlene (Richter) Killa would go on to earn an MBA and spend twenty-two years as an engineer at Ecolab, a St. Paul-based multinational developer and manufacturer. For the past decade she and her husband Mike have worked together on their own construction company. Marlene and Mike took part in Saint Paul Winter Carnival activities for years following 1978: Marlene served as a judge for the 1980 Queen of the Snows competition and was active with the Former Queen’s Club for many years. Mike served as Captain of the Guard in 1986 and both were active with the Royal Party that year.

Sondra Reierson, Associate Curator, 3D Objects

See more:

  • Saint Paul Winter Carnival guide to related MNHS collections, including photographs and artifacts.

  • St. Paul Auditorium photographs. The Auditorium was razed in 1982; Ordway Theater was partially constructed on the original site of the Auditorium, beside the Roy Wilkins Auditorium.

  • In 1961 Donaldson's, a Minneapolis company, merged with the Golden Rule department store in St. Paul and changed the store's name to Donaldson's a few years later. The St. Paul location remained in the Golden Rule building until 1980, when it moved to the Town Square complex. The original building still stands at 85 7th Place East, St. Paul.

  • Ecolab, Inc. records

Artifacts referenced:

  • Saint Paul Winter Carnival Queen of the Snows coronation gown <2014.162.1.A,B> Two piece white formal gown worn by Marlene (Richter) Killa as the 1978 Saint Paul Winter Carnival Queen of the Snows.

  • Saint Paul Winter Carnival King Boreas uniform <1988.396. and 1998.413.> Jacket, pants, hat, gloves and scepter used by Daniel F. Dolan as the 1978 Saint Paul Winter Carnival King Boreas.

Points for Creativity

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | December 9, 2014

How do you encourage people to go see your new production? Easy! Give them cool swag. But when posters and key chains no longer grab people’s attention, marketing offices need to get creative.

This emery board was created in 1963 to promote the Alfred Hitchcock film, The Birds, at the Anoka Theater in Minnesota. With its clever, though slightly nefarious slogan, “File Your Nails – Don’t Bite Them, THE BIRDS is coming”, the nail file successfully suggests the frightening nature of the film, (you will never look at birds the same way), while still giving people something they will actually use and look at frequently.

Slightly less useful, though still creative, is this cell phone holder promoting the 2009 film New In Town. In the movie a woman moves from Miami, Florida to New Ulm, Minnesota and realizes it’s not so bad. Made of red rubber foam, the shoe has the movie’s title written across the vamp, so you read it every time you grab your phone. Perhaps a snow boot would have better evoked the spirit of Minnesota, but it probably wouldn’t hold a cell phone.

Finally, we have a top hat, used as part of the promotional package for the 1995 premier of Julie Andrews’ musical, Victor/Victoria at the Orpheum Theater in Minneapolis. A ribbon above the brim reads “Victor/Victoria” and the hat held dried roses, a plastic vase, a chocolate bar, and more. However, because of the direction of the text it cannot actually be worn as a hat, (well, it could, but everyone would be craning their necks trying to read upside-down). So instead, it’s a hat that promotes the musical from your dresser. It’s probably a perfect storage space for your nail file and cell phone holder.

Consulting the Oracle

By: admin | Our Favorite Things | October 24, 2014

I do not consider myself a person who scares easily. That being said, when I came across a Ouija board and planchette in the storage space at the Minnesota History Center, under the watchful glass eyes of a Great Horned Owl and around the corner from the collection of death masks, it gave me pause.

The Ouija board is one of the most iconic board games in America. The first patented game was created by the Kennard Novelty Company of Baltimore, Maryland, in 1891 in response to a growing fascination with spiritualism and the paranormal. To play, participants place their fingertips on the planchette and watch as messages are spelled out on the board, allegedly by the influence of spirits.

During most of the 20th Century the Ouija board was little more than an intriguing novelty toy, frequently played at parties and gatherings across the country. The game was mass produced in various styles, such as this board created by Parker Brothers, Inc., circa 1967. While there were certainly people who took it more seriously than others, the game was generally considered harmless fun.

That changed with the release of horror movies in the 1970’s and 80’s that portrayed Ouija boards at instruments of evil spirits and demons, such as The Exorcist in 1973 (this is also the year the board was donated to the Minnesota Historical Society). People began to view the game as frightening, while religious groups across the country condemned it as in tool of the devil, a practice that has continued even into the 21st Century.

These days, Ouija boards remain popular everywhere from slumber parties to pop culture, and there are all sorts of stories floating around about chilling experiences and revelations from using them. And even though scientists have established that the messages are created by the unconscious movements of the participants and not spiritual interference, the mysterious nature of the Ouija board lives on.

Seeing the board in the museum certainly makes me wonder…what stories would it tell?

Stephanie Olson
Collections Assistant

Learn more about the history and science of the Ouija board in the Smithsonian Magazine.

Follow-up: this was caught happening this morning in Collections storage! Happy Halloween everyone!


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